Churches, sacred spaces – easy targets for thieves?

By Pat McCaughan
Posted Feb 15, 2012
Damaged window

Several stained-glass windows at St. Paul and St. James Church in New Haven, Connecticut, were damaged by vandals during a break-in in 2011. Photo/Ryan DeLoach

[Episcopal News Service] Google “church” and “robbery” together and the hits just keep on coming.

Recent thefts of copper wiring, mostly from outdoor air conditioning units, as well as other less frequent instances of break-ins, armed robberies and embezzlement, have taught church officials a painful lesson — that even sacred spaces may be easy targets for experienced thieves.

The trouble is, many unsuspecting church officials frequently don’t think about security measures, or that they might be victimized, until they are.

St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in New Orleans was targeted not once, but twice last year by copper wire thieves, according to the Rev. Steve Craft, rector.

“They stole the copper wiring out of the office air conditioning units at first,” Craft said in a recent telephone interview from his office.

“When we got to work we thought that the unit needed to be recharged because that happens from time to time. That was a Friday. On Sunday somebody came and said, ‘Do you know the copper piping is missing from the air conditioning unit?'”

A week later the thieves returned, this time stealing copper wiring from a school air conditioning unit. “They came back in the middle of the night,” Craft said. “Within a week, we had about $10,000 worth of damage. They even took out the security lamp lighting in the school buildings.”

Preschool classes had to be cancelled for more than a week because “you can’t have kids inside in the heat,” Craft said.

When local authorities told him that “the amount of money they actually are going to make from this copper was probably about $100 to $150, while it caused $10,000 worth of damage,” he hung a sign that said ‘if you need money, knock on the door, please’.

“I’d rather just give somebody the $100 than to go through the hassle again,” he said.

Insurance coverage offset some of the losses and the church has undertaken some precautionary measures, such as beefing up lighting around the property and restricting access to the parking lot. They are now fundraising to purchase protective covering for the air conditioning units, but in tough economic times dollars are scarce and the church has yet to recover its previous membership numbers after Hurricane Katrina, Craft acknowledged.

He worries the thieves could return again. “It can happen again any day now. We’re just hoping we get everything done before that.”

The ordeal amounted to “a whole lot of mess for a little bit of money,” Craft added. “It’s a very sad thing when people feel they have to desecrate a church or any other building, and to cause so much trouble for such a little bit of money. It really is amazing, and not in a good way.”

It’s not a problem only in the United States. Metal thefts from air conditioning units are also a challenge for the Church of England, so much so that the Rt. Rev. John Hind, Bishop of Chichester, raised the issue at a Feb. 6 meeting of the House of Lords.

Speaking in support of an amendment giving law enforcement officials the right to enter scrap metal yards to determine if metals were obtained illegally, Hind said “in the year from 2010-2011, thefts from churches went up by one-third, resulting in a loss to the church of 4.5 million pounds (roughly $7 million U.S.) in that one year alone.”

In January, British Home Secretary Theresa May announced increased penalties for metal theft and the outlaw of cash transactions at scrap metal yards.

The Diocese of Manchester welcomed the move. In a statement posted on its website, Anne Sloman, chair of the Church of England’s Cathedral and Church Buildings Council, said: “The Church has campaigned for a long time for legislation to outlaw cash transactions for scrap metal. We are still suffering the theft of lead from ten church roofs a day, and every weapon the Government and the police can use to help us combat this crime is greatly to be welcomed.”

Similarly, the Church Insurance Agency Corp., which insures about 86 percent of Episcopal churches for property and casualty coverage, reports that copper theft has quadrupled in the past three years. Thieves frequently target rooftops, gutters, and air conditioning units and, in some cases, new construction, according to spokeswoman Nancy Fisher.

Mike Marino, vice president for property and casualty claims said that the agency “will work with churches if they have questions about some sort of risk management prevention.

“A lot of churches have brainstormed among themselves and with parishioners about these issues,” Marino said in a recent telephone interview from his office. “For example, on air conditioning units, they contacted maybe a contractor or someone in the parish knows about building fences and units that can make it more difficult or impossible for somebody to just strip it down to get the metal.”

The Church Pension Group also offers resources to help congregations assess risk management needs.

‘The 4 a.m. call every priest dreads’

Similarly, St. Paul and St. James Church in New Haven, Connecticut ramped up security after vandalism and break-ins last year, according to the Rev. Alex Dyer, rector.

While a cross was stolen and a candlestick dating back to the early 1900s was taken, Dyer said a troubling aspect of the incident was “that a bible was ripped, all the sacred spaces were disrupted or attacked,” including the stained glass windows, prompting his call for forgiveness for the perpetrator.

“I got that 4 a.m. call that every priest dreads. My first thought was, who would rob a church?” recalled Dyer, 32, during a recent telephone interview from his office. “But I guess it is becoming more common.”

The church had taken some security precautions to protect office space but not in the sanctuary, he said. “People think that office computers would be a popular target but this church — like a lot of churches — thought, who would dare attack the church? So there were no motion detectors in there.”

After his public call for forgiveness, the cross and candlestick were returned. Still, the church consulted a local private security firm and has “since done a huge upgrade to our security system. We put in more motion detectors, contact strips on doors and an upgrade around the church in general. This is the age we live in. It’s unfortunate, but we are trying to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, to quote Jesus.”

Afterwards, he conducted a liturgy from the Book of Occasional Services to restore things profaned, “not a service you want to have to do,” he said. But, Dyer added, while he feels the church is better protected, “no place is really protected. You do what you can, basically, but nothing is perfect.”


A lesson learned at gunpoint

The Rev. Chad Lawrence, a priest associate at the Parish Church of St. Helena’s in Beaufort, South Carolina learned that lesson at gunpoint.

“I was rehearsing my sermon on a Saturday evening last June 25. It was about 8:30 p.m. when I locked up the church, shut off the lights, and began to walk back to my office to get my car keys.”

A man jumped out of the bushes near the church, put a gun to Lawrence’s head and threatened to kill him. He took Lawrence’s MP3 player and demanded his wallet and car keys.

The thief forced Lawrence into his office to get the wallet and keys, tied him up and “he stood over me and said ‘I want to kill you, right now. Give me three reasons why I shouldn’t kill you. No one would ever see me.’

“I said, ‘I have a wife and three children who I love very much. I’m here doing God’s work and if you do kill me, you will have to answer to him,'” replied Lawrence, whose father is Diocese of South Carolina bishop Mark Lawrence.

“I was praying the whole time,” recalled Lawrence, 37, during a recent telephone interview from his office. “You begin to wonder, at what point do you begin to struggle back. Then he took an extension cord and hog-tied me, my hands to my feet. He put the gun to my head again and said ‘I’ll be right back’ and he walked out of my office to my car.

“At that point, I was inclined to believe he was going to come back,” he recalled. “I learned later that he had put doorstops in every door along the way so they wouldn’t lock behind him.”

Lawrence waited about 15 seconds, freed himself and called local police, who responded within minutes. The thief was still in Lawrence’s car but escaped on foot and was not apprehended.

St. Helena’s has since reviewed its security measures “making sure we have policies and practices so that we’re not by ourselves in the church area,” Lawrence said. “We put cameras on certain high traffic areas as a deterrent. We also use a magnetic key fob entryway into our main entrance and exit, so that door remains locked the majority of the time. In the past, at night that door was open, left unlocked.”

A security expert recommended that staff -including preschool and day-school teachers-not be on the premises late nights or weekends. “We are trying to encourage some general, safe practices,” he said.

Consequently, no more late-night sermon practices for Lawrence — not in the church, anyway.

He recalled that after the initial shock “of him bursting out of the bushes with a gun, I felt very calm. It was almost a supernatural kind of peace and calmness throughout the entire episode, one that I can’t explain other than to say that I knew God was with me. I knew that if I were to die I would be with him. That wasn’t my hope or my desire, of course. At the same time, I felt very exposed and vulnerable, and in the presence of a real evil.”

After cycling through a lot of emotions, “I was able to pray for him,” he said. “The process of losing my wallet and having to go through cancelling credit cards and going to the Department of Motor Vehicles was very annoying and I was angry about that, but I dealt with it. But I look back and I’m grateful that God saw me through and that it turned out the way it did for me.”


‘Only as sick as our secrets’

A theft at Holy Faith Church in Inglewood, California felt every bit as sinister, but even more painful because the perpetrator was a trusted friend and associate. A parish administrator embezzled about $400,000 from the church over a period of seven years, according to the Rev. Altagracia Perez, rector for the past nine years.

“We had most of the usual safety factors in place.” Only one recommendation wasn’t followed to the letter. “We did have staff opening the mail,” she said during a recent telephone interview from her office.

Perez said she wanted to go public with the congregation’s experience of embezzlement because she hopes it will encourage others to break what seems to be a code of silence, of shame associated with being victimized.

“We’re only as sick as our secrets,” said Perez, adding that when she shared her experience with colleagues throughout the church “there was not one person who didn’t have a similar story. They had either experienced it directly or knew someone who had been through this.”

Yet, “nobody wanted to talk about it,” she added. “Even the police, when I went to report what had happened, couldn’t even pretend to be surprised, although they were surprised at the level of complexity involved in our case. They told me that at least once a week a church or nonprofit reports a similar experience.”

Holy Faith, which celebrated its centennial anniversary in 2011, had been experiencing ongoing financial struggles, so much so that at one point Perez went unpaid and parishioners upped their contributions to try to balance the church’s books. Yet, “we could never seem to get ahead,” Perez recalled. They later learned it was because a parish administrator, who has been charged and is awaiting trial, had created a false set of books.

“His professional experience was in banking, finance and computer systems, which was how he was able to create duplicate bank statements,” she said. Briefly, unbeknownst to Perez or the congregation, the administrator created a separate electronic account in his name and used church funds to pay the balance. When he opened the mail, he created new bank statements that omitted records of those purchases.

Eventually the church auditor became suspicious and decided to review “every single paper from an entire year to try to find an explanation for what was happening,” Perez said. He chose the year 2010 and “found one statement of an electronic transmission that we couldn’t explain. There were no receipts, no paper work for it,” she said.

“It was insane, it was devastating to the church,” Perez said. “We had been struggling for so long. He had been stealing from the plate, from the investment accounts, from money turned in for gifts, everything.”

When confronted, the parish administrator admitted the embezzlement. “He was an active member of the parish, he was involved in everything; people trusted him. When I asked him how he could have done this, he didn’t really understand how he could have done it, either,” she said.

A forensic audit followed, with church members stepping up to assist. Now, even more disheartening is that “nothing is being done with the case,” Perez said. It was transferred to the major crimes unit “but we’ve heard nothing. We are trying to find out what happened but nobody’s gotten back to us,” Perez said.

Although some money was recovered through insurance and bank policies, it’s been a painful experience and one that Perez is eager for others to avoid, if they can learn from Holy Faith’s experience.

“Apparently smaller places get hit more often because they don’t have the human resources or the financial resources to do the extra things to protect people,” she said.

“I understand the guilt and shame,” associated with being victimized, she said. “But when I saw how prevalent it is and that nobody is talking about these things, that has to be the reason people get away with it. If people heard what happened in other places it would at least give them a warning of what to look out for, to be careful.”

“Vigilance is essential in following established fiduciary practices for the fiscal security of every congregation and church site,” Diocese of Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno told ENS.

“Here in the Diocese of Los Angeles we have proactive procedures in place to assure regular audits and provide professional financial consultation to all congregations and other church organizations. The Inglewood parish situation is a clear reminder to everyone of the importance of following these procedures consistently and thoroughly without exception.”

As a result, church leadership is more aware and are optimistic about the future, Perez added. “People feel more ownership in the church and they really do feel better knowing that there was an explanation for everything we were going through.

“It’s made a big difference in the morale of the church. There’s a sense of God really working with us and through and being really present in the way that a crisis brings together. It has uncovered gifts and people have been trained to do things they never thought they would be doing.”

—The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.

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Comments (2)

  1. Jonathan Frazier says:

    This can help prevent your copper downspouts from being stolen: run strong steel cable down the inside, attach at the bottom with an eye-bolt that is sunk in concrete, and attach at the top with two small sections of rebar that are welded into an X or + shape. We had a dozen thefts before this and have had none since. I can send pictures if anyone needs them.

  2. Being in the midst of a somewhat urban neighborhood many people who move up and down the road stop by for coffee, spiritual direction, a bowl of soup, or to simply visit, but sometimes some people take the opportunity to help themselves to parishioners purses, coats, umbrellas, and even smash the windows of cars during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. The door to our secretary’s office was kicked in and all our petty cash ($30) was stolen and then while we were refurbishing the roof of the church someone climbed the scaffolding erected by the roofers and stole the church’s rooftop speakers and shorted out the entire carillon system costing hundreds upon hundreds of dollars. Now during our worship services we lock all our doors except those coming into the church itself. Not only are we a respite for some we are a crime spree for others.

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